Jewish critics of Zionism have clashed with American Jewish leaders for decades

Police arrest hundreds, including members of the Jewish group Not In Our Name, at a pro-Palestinian protest in Brooklyn on April 23, 2024. <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Fatih Aktas/Anadolu via Getty Images;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Fatih Aktas/Anadolu via Getty Images</a>

Since October 2023, American Jews have been engaged in an intense, fractious debate over Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip.

Media reports say that American Jews are experiencing “the great rupture,” widening “rifts,” and stand at a “moral, political crossroads.”

While most American Jews remain broadly supportive of Israel, others have protested vigorously against U.S. support for Israel and are demanding a cease-fire in the Gaza war. They carry signs saying “Not in Our Name.”

Their slogan highlights the fact that American foreign aid to Israel has long relied on the support of American Jews. Unqualified U.S. support for Israel was built, in part, on the promise that Israel kept American Jews – and all Jews – safe, especially after the Holocaust.

But American Jews have never been entirely unified in their support for Israel or in their visions of what role Israel and Palestine should play in American Jewish life.

A 1961 death notice for a man named William Zukerman, described as the editor of an 'anti-Zionist publication.'

No consensus

My new book, “The Threshold of Dissent: A History of American Jewish Critics of Zionism,” analyzes a century of debates among American Jews over Zionism and Israel.

My account begins in 1885, when elite Reform Jews, with a goal of full integration in Jim Crow America, composed the Pittsburgh Platform, which rejected Jewish nationalism out of fear that it would make them targets of antisemitic accusations of dual loyalty.

Two years later, Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl founded the modern Zionist movement, relying on European powers for support for a modern Jewish state.

The genocide of Europe’s Jewish population in the Holocaust fundamentally altered American Jews’ perspectives on Zionism.

Many believed that only a Jewish national homeland in what was then Palestine could prevent another genocide. Others insisted that the lessons of the Holocaust meant that Jews must not contribute to making refugees of another group of people: the Palestinians who were then living on the land.

There were other issues that contributed to a new understanding of Zionism in the 1950s and 1960s within American Jewish communities. Among them: the Nakba, which was the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians during the 1948 founding of Israel; Israel’s treatment of immigrant Jews from the Arab and Muslim world known as Mizrahi Jews; and the rise in Israel’s militarism.

Across the 20th century, mainstream Jewish leaders manufactured an American Jewish so-called consensus on Zionism and Israel, in part by silencing American Jewish critics of Zionism.

From the late 1940s through 1961, journalist William Zukerman edited The Jewish Newsletter, a publication that captured some of the voices of Jewish dissent from Zionism, including his own. He reported on Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians and documented how American Jewish funds fueled Israel’s military campaigns instead of supporting vibrant American Jewish communities.

Because Zukerman dared to publish this criticism, he faced campaigns of steep resistance, eventually losing funding and support from Jewish communal organizations.

Anxious that Zukerman’s dissent would cause “increasing trouble” for American support for Israel, Israeli diplomats wrote to American Jewish leaders, and together they convinced some Jewish journalists to exclude Zukerman’s writings from their publications.

A large group of people holding a banner that says 'JEWS TO BIDEN: END ISRAEL'S SIEGE ON GAZA.'

Liberation movements, American Jews and Zionism

Into the 1960s, as mainstream Jewish leaders emphasized the urgency of Jewish unity on Israel and Zionism and showed growing intolerance for dissent, anti-colonialist activists gained momentum across the world. From 1948 through 1966, Israel held all Palestinians citizens under martial law, limiting their movement and access to opportunities and resources. Across the 1950s, Israel excluded Palestinian workers from the Histadrut, the state’s largest labor union federation.

Activists allied with the cause of Palestinian rights noted Israel’s alliance with colonial power France during the Algerian war of independence from 1954 to 1962 and criticized Israel as an occupier after the 1967 war. They spoke, too, of Israel’s growing alliance with apartheid South Africa in the 1970s.

Black and Arab leaders in the U.S. taught within, and learned from, these anti-colonial movements. Civil rights and anti-war activists offered new perspectives to debates over Israel and Zionism.

Raised in a liberal Zionist family, student Marty Blatt was learning to fight for justice. Blatt was born in 1951 in Brooklyn, New York. His grandfather had died in a Nazi prison camp. In 1970, he joined the anti-war movement at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

“The Vietnam war was a horrible injustice,” Blatt said. From the movement and from members of the Israeli left, he learned that “Israel/Palestine was another great injustice.”

With no access to the history of Palestinians in school, at home or at the synogogue, young American Jews like Blatt who joined the civil rights and anti-war movements learned these lessons for the first time. When they then criticized Israel and American Zionism, they, too, met with hostility from the mainstream Jewish world.

Blatt sought to teach his fellow students at Tufts with a course in 1973 titled Zionism Reconsidered. In it, he taught the history of Zionism, Palestinian resistance and Israel’s Cold War alliance with the United States. He taught students that anti-Zionism was not antisemitism.

On March 13, 1973, in the midst of the semester, members of the Jewish Defense League, a far-right, anti-Arab, Jewish nationalist group founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane,disrupted Blatt’s class. They called it an “anti-Jewish outrage” and passed out a flyer that read, “Not since Germany in the days of Hitler has any university dared to offer a course presenting a one-sided view of any national movement.”

Boston-area Jewish leaders urged community members to write to Tufts leadership to shut down Blatt’s class. These letters used apocalyptic language to describe the damage wrought by his course, likening it to the destruction of the Jewish people. During this controversy, Blatt picked up the phone one day to hear someone who clearly knew his family history in the Holocaust tell him: “Your parents should not have been saved.”

An article about Blatt and his course in Boston’s Jewish Advocate was headlined “Tufts Anti-Zionist Course Seen as Abuse of Academic Freedom.” Though Tufts stood behind Blatt’s right to teach the class for another term, which it still touts on the university website, angry responses to the class appeared in community forums for years.

Divided on campus and beyond

In the current moment, college campuses have been riven with debates over the boundaries between student safety and free speech and whether criticism of Israel constitutes antisemitism.

Young Jews dismayed by the unconditional Zionist agenda of Jewish campus organization Hillel and who founded Open Hillel in 2013 are now active in Gaza protests as “Judaism on Our Own Terms.” They might be surprised to learn that in late 1972, even before his course began, Blatt and others founded the Tufts Hillel Non-Zionist Caucus. Hillel subsequently expelled them from the organization.

For over a century, some American Jews have modeled the idea that unqualified support for Israel and Zionism was “not in our name.” They prioritized justice as a Jewish value and were motivated not by self-hatred or antisemitism but by abiding commitments to human rights and to Jewish safety and community.

Today’s activists protesting over the devastation in Gaza are testing the threshold of dissent and the limits of free speech and academic freedom. They embrace what they view as more just visions of Israel and Palestine and more inclusive visions of an American Jewish community, one with space for dissent and earnest conversations about Israel and Zionism, and one in which Jews stand in solidarity with groups working for justice in Palestine, Israel and around the world.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Marjorie N. Feld, Babson College

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Marjorie N. Feld does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.